Iceland Managing Director Richard Walker’s announcement that the frozen food chain will be applying palm oil ban policy in its own brand products by the end of this year would strike some as a laudable and heroic effort to get the industry to be sustainable.
This is especially so when we see the youthful Walker being filmed, in a video released by Iceland Foods, braving forests, swamps and what appears to be palm oil caused wastelands in Indonesia to uncover the truth about palm oil.
In the video, Walker is big on the word to prove.
His visit to Indonesia, he said, has convinced him that “currently no major supermarket or food manufacturer can fully prove that the palm oil they use is truly sustainable and the damaged being cause to the global environment as precious rainforest continues to be lost.
he goes on, saying that Iceland’s ban on palm oil in its own brand products is a way to “prove to the food industry that there is no need to participate in the destruction of the rainforest.”
As such “removing palm oil is the only way we can prove to our customers that our products are not a cause of environmental destruction.”
Walker is young and idealistic. The 37-year old geography graduate from Durham University has been in this job for three years. Before that, he was the International Business Director of Iceland. He is also the son of the founder and CEO of Iceland, Sir Malcolm Walker.
Richard’s idealism is laudable. But has he been misguided in announcing the ban?
Here are three reasons why his decision may have been misguided:
First, if he is really passionate about the environment he would definitely have been aware that palm oil is not the world’s largest driver of environmental destruction — the cattle industry is.
So if he is so keen to prove to his customers that Iceland’s products are not a cause of environmental destruction, he should remove all beef products from its outlets.
He surely can’t be ignorant of the cattle industry’s impact on the environment so why is he, like some of the leading environmental groups, looking the other way when it comes to beef? Is it because getting people to give up beef hurts the British beef industry that is too close to home, and palm oil is a soft and easy target (splice in images of lush rainforests juxtaposed against cleared, barren land; plaintive Orang Utan destined for extinction)
Doubters of the environmental destruction caused by the cattle industry and the reason why the environmentalists have refused to campaign against it would do well to watch the Cowspiracy, a documentary that environmentalists have strangely been silent about.
Secondly, if proving concern for deforestation is the case, Iceland should not carry soy products because soy cultivation is the main driver of deforestation in the Amazon. Why pick only on palm oil if the concern is for deforestation and environmental destruction?
Thirdly, although Richard is correct that “no major supermarket or food manufacturer can fully prove that the palm oil they use is truly sustainable,” that statement ignores the huge progress made by players in the industry that includes the RSPO, the large palm oil growers and buyers and the multinational users like Nestle to use only sustainable palm oil.
Much work still needs to be done to ensure that the palm oil that reaches consumers are 100% sustainable but they are all working hard to ensure traceability in an industry that is baffling in its complexity and variety of players.
The difference in approach is that Richard Walker thinks simplistically that bans like his will force the palm oil industry to become sustainable and stop deforestation. The Nestles and others, however, are more realistic because they realize that other livelihoods are also involved.
The common misperception of palm oil growers, especially in the west, is that the industry is dominated by huge players and businesses. The reality is that today more than a quarter of palm oil growers are smallholders, so-called independent growers. These smallholders are estimated to make up 60 percent of the industry by the year 2030.
Bans such as Iceland’s will hurt these smallholders more because unlike the big boys, they cannot invest in the means to certify their products for sustainability and ensure traceability. There is no quick and immediate solution to the problems faced by the smallholders, the only solution is a gradual one where the government and big players, as well as certification bodies, work together to ensure certification and traceability.
The world is not as simple as Richard Walker makes it out to be. There are real problems, and how to achieve sustainable cultivation of palm oil is one major problem that, if left unsolved will see continue deforestation and environmental destruction.
Solving problems, however, takes much more effort and involves collaboration and working together rather than a grandstanding ban, backed up with a slick video. A pity because his passion could have been harvested to be a force to solve the industry’s problems, not to make it worse.